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Is your firm helping veterans or just hiring veterans?

11 min read

Modern Money

Chris Perkins, Global Head of OTC Clearing at Citi

Veterans Day marks a time of year when businesses across America like to highlight the initiatives they undertake to promote the hiring of military veterans. Many of these initiatives tout quantitative goals for how many veterans have been or will be hired. However, there are some individuals on Wall Street who are trying to shift that thinking and convince firms that simply hiring veterans is not enough. One of those individuals is Chris Perkins.

“Veterans need careers, not just jobs,” explains Perkins.

Perkins, who is the Managing Director and Global Head of OTC Clearing at Citi, knows what he is talking about because he has walked the walk. After serving 9 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and attaining the rank of Captain, Perkins transitioned to Wall Street in 2006. Ever since, Perkins has used lessons learned from his own transition to help the industry do a better job of helping veterans. As Perkins explains, sometimes even the best of intentions can lead to troubling outcomes.

“There are times when people may think they are doing veterans a favor by giving them a job. If we want to be able to make sure they succeed in this industry, however, we need to make sure they are the right fit for a position and placed in a situation where their unique skill set is best applied.”

For nearly a decade, Perkins has been among a group of Wall Street professionals working to institutionalize what had previously been an ad hoc support system for veterans. What started out as a group of support networks within Citi and initiatives like Citi Salutes eventually grew to become an industry-wide organization known as Veterans on Wall Street (VOWS).

“When a veteran comes into our industry or any other industry, we may have to teach them the business. But they come with all those intangible qualities that can’t be quantified – strong ethics, loyalty and teamwork. They want to serve and they want to do the right thing,” Perkins explains.

“Something very powerful that I see in veterans is the ability to make decisions under pressure,” Perkins adds. “Some roles in finance are full of pressure. You have to have the grit and desire to succeed. A lot of veterans have that trait.”

To understand why Perkins is so passionate about helping his fellow veterans, it helps to learn more about his personal journey.

The Transition from Warrior to Wall Street

Perkins graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1997 and in short time earned a Masters degree from Georgetown. After being stationed at multiple bases in the Asia-Pacific region, Perkins made his way to Iraq as an artillery officer. He served in many roles in Iraq and following the death of a fellow Marine, Perkins assumed responsibility for fire support coordination. His duties also included civil affairs related to rebuilding part of the Iraq’s infrastructure and preparing for elections. Perkins had to perform these duties while operating in a combat zone.

“There is nothing like the challenge of urban combat. IEDs, mortars, and small arms fire were a regular experience. We were seeking to win hearts and minds and faced a treacherous enemy. We would literally be handing out bicycles to children, then minutes later find ourselves pinned down by enemy fire and fighting for our lives. Being in the Marines was an incredible experience.”

Perkins eventually rotated back to the U.S., where he took charge of a 6-gun howitzer battery and 130 Marines and sailors at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. Standing on the doorstep of ascending to the rank of Major, Perkins made the difficult decision to transition out of the military.

“I wasn’t sure which direction I was going to go: either go back and work for the government or go into finance. I would have loved to have gone to business school if I had time, but I was in my 30s and I really wanted to move forward with a career in the financial services industry.”

Originally from New Jersey, Perkins had family who worked in financial services and had met his wife, who was an investment banker.

“I moved to New York and didn’t have a job at the time. I was amazed to find out how interested people in the financial industry were to talk to a veteran, but there was no built-in institutional support for those who had served.”

Because of that lack of institutional support for veterans, Perkins had to tap a family resource for one of the most basic tools a person needs when they are chasing a new career.

“My brother-in-law happened to be at Harvard Business School, so I asked him to send me his resume format so I could use that format and circulate my own resume. It was all about learning and speaking the language in Wall Street terms, and I started networking as much as possible.”

Eventually, Perkins connected with another former Marine who had made the transition from the military to Wall Street. This contact had gone to business school and become a trader for Lehman Brothers. But even that contact had to make sure Perkins had the basics.

“He asks me, ‘Do you have a suit?’

I answer, ‘Yes, I have a suit.’

Then he asks me, ‘Do you have a resume?’

I answer, ‘Yes, I have a resume.’”

Having passed the ‘suit-and-resume test’, Perkins was invited to interview at Lehman Brothers.

“The most common question I faced was: ‘What did you do in the military and why do you want to work in finance?’”

Perkins’ answer was simple. “I am an artillery officer who just got back from combat. My job was to make quantitative and timely calculations and manage risk. Isn’t that what you guys do?”

The executives at Lehman Brothers were won over and offered Perkins a spot in their associate class. Perkins couldn’t have been happier.

“I really wanted to be in that class because it allowed me to go through training. It was quite an experience trying to get my head around Excel while I was sitting next to a guy who had been programming it for the last 10 years. They had a lot to learn from me and I had a lot to learn from them.”

From a Crisis, Comes an Opportunity

At Lehman Brothers, Perkins expressed his interest in hedge funds and derivatives and wound up working on a start-up business called the Derivative Prime Brokerage Business. Perkins dove into the work and learned everything there was to know about the business. When his boss left the firm 18 months later, executives at Lehman Brothers wondered who would take the helm of the business. Perkins volunteered.

“I showed up in June 2006. By October 2008, I learned the ins and outs of how derivatives markets function. It was an incredibly educational experience. And then my firm shut its doors,” Perkins explains.

Like most of his colleagues at Lehman Brothers, the collapse of the firm was a “difficult” experience. However, Perkins didn’t have long to dwell on the demise of the firm that has given him his first opportunity on Wall Street.

“Thankfully, I received a call from Citi, and literally went across the street.”

Though he had only been on Wall Street for a relatively short period of time, Perkins’ position and experience at Lehman Brothers proved invaluable in a sector of finance that was about to undergo a complete metamorphosis.

“In 2009, the G-20 committed to reform the derivatives market at their summit in Pittsburgh,” Perkins recounts. “All of the sudden, I found myself in the middle of the transition of the $700 trillion derivatives market to the central clearing paradigm. Legislators throughout the world made clearing mandatory, and I was able to leverage my experiences both in finance and the Marine Corps to help drive this new business forward.”

Combat Experience Pays Off on Wall Street

Perkins says there have been a few instances when the experience of taking enemy fire on the battlefield has helped him keep his cool on Wall Street. One of those instances was on a conference call with an industry heavyweight when plans for the transformation of the derivatives industry were being discussed.

“There were times when we would have to come together with very senior people in the industry and I only had a few years of experience at the time. In one instance, a proposal came up from a senior person at another firm that I thought it was bad for markets and other companies. The trait that the Marine Corps helped me develop was courage, and I had the courage to stand up. I was able to go forward with something I believed was right.”

On Building Institutional Support for Veterans

As Perkins’ career blossomed, he never stopped dedicating time to helping veterans make the transition to Wall Street.

When he was at Lehman Brothers, Perkins tried to assemble institutional support for setting up a veterans’ network, but the initiative never had an opportunity to gain momentum before the firm collapsed. Once he arrived at Citi, Perkins wasted little time in pushing for a more formal approach to helping veterans. Citing the passion and patriotism he had already witnessed on Wall Street, the rest of Perkins’ pitch to executives at Citi also made business sense.

“We really need to set up a veterans’ network. We can start to institutionalize our support for military veterans. We can attract good talent, perform community outreach and mentor these people.”

Citi was “all in” and let Perkins establish the firm’s first veterans network. This is when Perkins saw momentum really started to build. By moving forward with the institutionalization of support, the network established formal governance and secured a budget. It also attracted a huge amount of support from very senior levels of the firm. When the network hosted its founding event, Citi’s chairman of the board at the time, Dick Parsons, showed up because he was a veteran of the Army. Citi currently has 16 networks that include more than 2,500 employees. The firm has even opened a network in the U.K.

Citi also launched Citi Salutes, an initiative that includes a website with a jobs board and contact information veterans can use to get in touch with the firm’s dedicated veteran recruiting team. As support for veterans was being institutionalized within Citi, the time was right to reach out to similar networks at other firms.

“We invited them to Citi Field to get together and talk about recruiting best practices and community events. Deutsche Bank reached out a few weeks later and said they wanted to form an industry working group. We told them we wanted to do the same thing, so we worked with Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs to start Veterans on Wall Street (VOWS). We’ve now expanded our membership to include all members of the financial services community.”

VOWS arranges for mentoring, provides career development and has hosted numerous job fairs and conferences. But Perkins says the group also leverages Wall Street to do what bankers do best: raise money. For the last few years, VOWS has raised more than a $1 million per year and donated it to the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Hardest Part of the Transition

“The hardest thing for any veteran to do is to figure out what they want to do,” Perkins says.

When a member of the military is going through deployments, they often don’t have a lot of time to think about what lies next for their career. Perkins says there is room for improvement when it comes to helping people think about the transition earlier in their careers – before they exit the military.

“When a veteran shows up, we ask them what they want to do and they respond by asking us what we think they should do,” Perkins says. “We can’t necessarily tell them what they should do because it is up to the veteran to think about where they ultimately want to be.”

While Perkins expends a lot of effort formalizing support systems for veterans, he says the responsibility for charting a course for success still rests with the individual veteran.

“In the financial services industry, there are a many different roles and jobs and lifestyles and cultures. Which is the right fit? It takes some time to do that discovery and ultimately it comes down to people,” Perkins explains. “You have to find people who can help you along the way. A lot of veterans have an amazing network and they don’t even know it. Leveraging and developing that network is what brings you to the realization of, ‘This is for me. This is where I need to sit. This is where I can grow my career because it is the right fit. This is not a job, this is a career.’”